Sunday, November 29, 2009

Very Wet Tortugas

The story of our Thanksgiving at the Dry Tortugas started for me at around two o'clock in the morning of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving Thursday. I left work after my Tuesday short shift and walked into a rain storm. It started out as a rain storm, and I thought "Ho hum," and kept riding snug in my waterproofs. After Big Coppitt Key at around Mile Marker 11, as I left the warm glow of the street lights behind me and plunged into the darkness of the Saddlebunch Keys the heavens opened and I was suddenly drenched in the worst storm I have ever had the pleasure of commuting through. The water came down like I was on a stage set and someone was pouring a bucket of water over my head every ten seconds. Visibility was so bad I could barely see ten yards down the road and the yellow cat's eyes appeared in the gloom as my only guides to the location of the roadway in front of me. Water cascaded off the visor on my open face helmet and speckled my glasses. More water poured down my collar and soaked my shirt front under my jacket. The lightning show overhead was amazing- white glowing clouds illuminated momentarily across the entire night sky, followed by the deepest possible darkness. It was scary and yet it resembled nothing quite so much as a B movie setting... I took this picture from under my house when I arrived shaken, stirred and surprisingly dry under most of my waterproofs, an hour after leaving work:I crawled into bed muttering something about how at least I didn't have to water the plants. My wife mumbled something from her side of the covers about whether or not the ferry would run.

"The weather has to have cleared up by the morning," I said with all the confidence of a man who has no idea what the hell he's talking about.

It takes a lot to persuade the ferries not to run. We assembled on the dock under threatening skies and in a break in the rain we piled our mountain of gear onto the boat. The perennially cheerful guide on the Yankee Freedom II spent much of the trip cheering the troops by chattering noisily about how the radar showed clear weather at the Fort. Ha! It was raining merrily when we arrived two and a half hours after leaving Key West.The decks were swept by the non existent rain, but the cheerful guide assured the day trippers the rain would let up soon. Ha! "Campers upstairs!"ordered the Park Volunteer . "So some guy from Ohio can tell us how to camp!" Carol muttered morosely. She's camped at the Fort more times than you've had hot meals and each time she has to listen to the same old litany of rules (no propane, no gas fuel of any kind, no water supplied etc...). We nicknamed the volunteer Jed Clampett but he did warm up a bit by the end of our four-day stay.Here is a shot of day trippers huddling in the entrance to the fort, avoiding the non existent rain, the stuff that wasn't on the radar.
The rain continued to come down in fits and starts and we tried to assemble our tents. My wife and I managed to mis-time our tent erection to a moment when wind and rain started gusting through the campground with particular intensity and fury and we did manage to get a few buckets of water inside the tent, though our stakes were solid enough it did not blow over in the subsequent hellfire squall. However Jed Clampett made his way over in the lull and informed us we were too close to the trail so with the help of our friends we raised the damp tent and lurched across the campground to a more suitable spot. Then we retreated to the covered docks and watched the rain pitter patter into the harbor.
We spent the afternoon exchanging pleasantries with park personnel, our spirits rising as the rain tapered off, then sinking as another squall blew through and drenched the landscape some more. "Good for our cisterns," the helpful young ranger from North Carolina pointed out with a cheery grin. The fort still uses many of the original cisterns, as many as aren't broken to collect rainwater for the National Park personnel stationed at the fort. Personally I felt the drought could have hung on few more days with no harm done.
We made a picnic on the dock, under cover as darkness fell and the rain with it. It seemed to be unceasing. "This is not how it's supposed to work." "This sucks." "If I wanted this crap I'd move to the Pacific Northwest." The grumbling went on as we scarfed pre-Thanksgiving food and drank wine and sipped rum and contemplated a night spent on the floor of the information room on the dock. Finally the rain let up and we dashed to our tents,mopping up the worst of the damp with towels and bundling ourselves in our damp bedding.

"Sweetheart, " I said to the morose bundle next to me, " if this isn't any better in the morning we go home." Her hands were like claws from the effects of the cold and damp on her arthritis. She grunted. I slept.We crawled from our tents like survivors of some disaster, groping for sternos and coffee pots and struggling to articulate our joints. Happily the fort is built on sand which is bad for the Civil War era building's foundations, but is great for dissipating moisture. We stood on the barely moist sand and studied the omens. Jan had never used sternos before so he read the instructions with care:And the familiar logo of the local coffee company helped put us in the mood for a hot cup of joe:Our neighbor took a meditative walk and I have no idea what thoughts she brought back to her camp but I thought the weather looked mildly promising:My wife and I agreed it was worth staying on, as things seemed to be improving with patches of blue overhead as we cleared up the breakfast things:There was some mild sun on harbor waters:I think these dudes, who were everywhere are terns or warblers or something. The previous occupants of our site had left some rather rank pieces of fish on the barbeque. Not a problem, these guys had it all cleaned in minutes.

A percolating coffee pot is a thing of beauty:Our al fresco laundryroom started to take shape after a breakfast washed down with copious hot coffee. Luckily Jed Clampett didn't put in an appearance to advise us of some nagging failure in our camping style because we were rather taken up with the minutiae of getting life back to some semblance of normal and wet beds and wet clothes were not part of the relaxed Thanksgiving Plan.For this lot life was the usual hardscrabble pecking about in the grass. I found their mundane fixation on daily routine rather reassuring. Not that birds have much choice.After a few hours of sun and brisk breezes things started to look quite cozy inside our tent:Carol laid her mattress out to dry and Kathy, (seen here) pottered about not the least bit worried that she had forgotten her inflatable mattress at home. She slept fine without it, which made me feel like a pansy on my Coleman mattress.The gusty winds did a number on the tent while we struggling to put it up but Carol had a brilliant solution to the insurmountable problem of a tear in the strap supporting the fly sheet. She put a pebble in the corner of the cloth, tied it off with an electrical zip tie and attached the hook with a series of ties looped together. It was a brilliant solution and gave us no further trouble:Sailors who were anchored in the harbor ventured ashore and made remarks about the comfort of a boat versus the damp of a tent, "...as long as the anchor holds!" Jan and I retorted in unison from lots of personal experience. The man on the left lives Up North (Michigan? Minnesota?) and spends his winters in Key West on his Fountaine Pajot catamaran while the dude in the electric blue shorts is his buddy down for a visit. They enjoyed the cool temperatures, did some sunbathing (erk! 70 degrees- 18C) and even went for a swim and enjoyed the water temperatures. They told us delightful stories of driving their cars on rivers in winter and bizarre tales of fishing through holes in the ice. Last nights' endless drizzle, squalls and rain were enough for me.The beauty of Florida winters is that rain is really of short duration normally and lovely summer-like weather comes back in short order. My wife and I decided to put on some skins and risk a plunge:The rangers made their tours of the harbor checking for park fee payments and all that:After we got used to the spectacularly cold initial contact, the water was we found quite bearable and we swam energetically for an hour or so.
Thanksgiving at Fort Jefferson was shaping up quite nicely, thank you.